On the night of November 4th/5th 2014 I was watching the aurora charts closely via the laptop in my room and was hoping I would be hunting aurora later in the night. A weak solar wind stream was generating high altitude aurora activity and the auroral oval was looking bright and healthy and if it continued to do so then I would be heading out on a photo shoot. The oval shrank to nothing after sunset however later it came back to life again and by late in the night it was over Scotland and would no doubt be visible from the N. Ireland coast. The problem was that the Bz component was bobbing up and down as if a celestial trout was nibbling at the end of the fishing line, when it went S the oval intensified then as it eased back N all lower level activity was gone, soon the Bz chart looked like a sine wave and I was certain things were not going to get any better. However there was still a chance and after some chatting on facebook about the potential I decided that I was going to make a go for it even though the sat images showed patchy cloud cover and there was a near full moon in the sky (3 days from full) however to be honest I just wanted an excuse to do some photography and get my sky fix so I quickly got my gear prepared and headed off into the night in the Berlingo with Tenacious D playing for company.
I drove under cloud and through rain as I made my way north and to be honest the sky didn't look too good at all and I began to worry that I would be wasting my time then when I reached Garvagh I was just about turned around and went back home, there were no stars in sight and although the sat images showed clear gaps behind this clump I began to doubt it for the visual scene was miserable and besides the night time IR sat images only showed high cloud and for all I knew there could be more behind it, however trusting my instincts I drove on at a relaxed pace to preserve fuel. Once I reached Coleraine I could see excellent clear sections appear with stars and convection - the sat images had been rite along and so had my instincts - so I put more pressure on the accelerator and quickened my pace.
I arrived at Downhill Beach, parked on the concrete slip way and raced out into the night on foot to check the sky. It was a beautiful night with bright stars, to the N where the old faithful circumpolar stars, to the W the setting Summer constellations and to the E the new Winter stars were putting on a show with spectacular Orion dominating the sky. The moon bathed the beach and small cumulus clouds in its eerie light and to the N low on the horizon I could see what is known as the lunar opposition effect - an enhancement to the sky directly opposite the moon which can sometimes be mistaken for a diffuse aurora with the naked eye. However as I adjusted to the light I noticed that there was something else going on for that region of sky to the N and NW was a subtle green colour, that was the aurora which I had dashed 40 miles to see, it was now after midnight and the aurora was a pitiful sight to be honest and just visible by eye and shockingly disappointing on camera although I did detect several green and red rays during the exposures which followed but they were washed out by the moon and they soon vanished. This was my 122nd aurora observation, it was not spectacular but it was still an aurora and another to add to the growing list, I had technically succeeded however I needed to get some decent images to make the journey worthwhile.
I set up two tripod-mounted cameras on the sand in front of the Berlingo, the first was my Canon 600D with 18mm lens facing N and the second was my old Canon 450D with 24-70mm lens facing NE, I decided to put the time to good use and began recording time lapse imagery with both cameras catching the movement of the stars, convection and tide. I was the only person on the entire beach and for that I was extremely grateful, getting a night photo shoot in at the coast by yourself is a difficult thing nowadays so I savoured every moment of this shoot and breathed in the fresh ocean air which I had been craving so much. I spent more than an hour here doing time lapse segments then a star trail with the 10mm lens and decided to move location and find something interesting inland.
Ar 02.00 I was driving through the small seaside town of Castlerock when I suddenly spotted Hazlett House on the corner. I had always wanted to photograph this famous historic house at night and now here was my chance, I felt like the house was calling me so I drove onto the footpath then parked and immediately got out with heart racing because I could already sense that this place would produce my best images of the night and the thought of shooting at a new location got me pumped up so I wasted no time. I set the camera and tripod over the wall and found this composition which I liked. Hazlett House looked absolutely stunning in the moonlight and I had timed it well when a decent clear period coincided with my arrival.
I'm glad I had my 10mm lens with me so I could get dramatic compositions of the house and the sky all in the frame which I couldn't have done with the kit lens. I began a star trail which was not an easy task at all, in fact, this was my greatest trail challenge to date because I needed to work out my exposure very carefully then mentally reduce it again when I would be building the trail later in the night back at home. The moon was illuminating the cottage and bright streetlights on the road behind me were illuminating the stonework and garden, if I wanted to get more stars the cottage would be blown out so I had to expose the scene for the building only and hoped that I would detect enough stars to make the scene effective. Furthermore I use startrails.de to stack the images which tends to brighten highlighted areas with each stack so this too can burn out bright areas on the final star trail, however in my head I worked out what could work for me, this is a combination of 7 sec's at ISO400 at F/3.2 combined together which brought out the stars and cottage perfectly, I just got away with it and no more I reckon, I wish the streetlights could be turned off for one night because the photo potential here would be epic with the correct sky phenomena above.
I changed the position of the tripod to the far corner for more exposures, I could push these single images a little more with longer shutter speeds because would not be stacked.
One of my favourite images from the night, another star trail which was a race against time because I noticed convection building over the sea (right of frame) and moving inland in my direction however I let the trail go a little longer as I wanted those moonlit cumulus clouds in the scene for a more dramatic composition. These images have not been enhanced, the colours you see here are all caused by the combination of moonlight and artificial lights, the night sky had sublime clarity with that magical Winter blue tone which can only be seen on nights of exceptional transparency.
Hazlett House is also well known for being haunted and has been investigated by several paranormal teams over the years with positive results. I could sense this about the property from the moment I got on location and during the entire time I spent here I felt a powerful sensation of being watched from inside the house and also from the shadows around the left side. I had the impression of a female watching me and perhaps wondering what I was doing and if I posed any threat to the house but I also sensed a feeling of 'acceptance', the place was as creepy as it was beautiful and I could sense every bit of that history which goes back to the 17th century, some sources say that Hazlett House is one of the oldest listed cottages in the country.
The clouds were now dominating the sky and I welcomed them for they were convective clouds and they often can enhance a night sky scene. Clouds can really add to a frame full of stars creating added interest and colour as they reflected the warm lights below which contrast beautifully with the cold colour in the moonlit sky above.
Castlerock was like a ghost town with no activity at all from people or passing cars so the night was silent. The only noise came when a gentle breeze stirred the ancient tree beside the house causing vivid brown and gold leaves to fall to the ground - a gentle reminder that Autumn was merging into Winter and very soon those branches would be naked eye and caked with frost.
The clouds put on a great show as they approached the house and they made me wonder if I could ever catch lightning over this house at some stage over the Winter months, now that would be an epic scene. I felt more than happy with what I had then called it a night and drove back to Maghera and was home for 03.00 however it would be 04.30 before I got my images uploaded and star trails built. A very pleasant and highly productive late night photo shoot and I have to say that Hazlett House had me buzzing, there was great energy about the place and I already feel a strong desire to return another time on the haunt for that rare lightning image.
Here's a short youtube video showcasing the time lapse footage I made at Hazlett House and Downhill Beach with cumulus clouds, stars, and even a very faint aurora which can barely be seen in conjunction with convection passing over Mussenden Temple. I hope you enjoyed the images and report, thanks very much for reading.